Friday, January 27, 2012

Bronze bell, death knell

I was more shocked than I should have been to learn that the statue of Dr Alfred Salter has been stolen from its bench by the Thames. There is little doubt that the metal has by now been melted down for scrap. For some time I had been meaning to write of sculptures; I have quite specific and personal preferences for my vision of Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, I no longer see a bronze statue of her gracing Newington Green. Mary on the Green will triumph, I have no doubt, but not in a semi-valuable metal.

I had wanted for her something along the heart-warming lines of John Betjeman, whom we visited at St Pancras station. He at least is overseen by many people walking about, bright lights, CCTV.  The First Wave, at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, upstate New York, is locked away securely. But what of the busts of Virginia Woolf, in Sussex and London? There are at least three versions of the Famous Five, outdoors in Canada: are they safe?

A little context on the mettle and the metal of the man. It sounds dry to say Alfred Salter (1873-1945) was a notable public health physician; it sounds idealistic to say he chose to live and practise in the dockers' slums of Bermondsey; it sounds heroic to say that he sacrificed his daughter to his principles. (She died of diphtheria, or was it scarlet fever, aged 11.) I first heard of the theft at Ian Bone's blog, where he reports that little Joyce and cat, also in bronze a few metres from the doctor on the bench, have been taken into care by the council, or, as London 24 put it, "Dr Salter feared stolen for scrap - daughter and kitten in hiding". The whole touching three-piece sculpture is (was?) called Dr Salter's Dream, created by Diane Gorvin, and beautifully set in place, like Betjeman, but in this case on the optimistically named Cherry Garden Pier. I had had it - and the sculptor - on my list of inspirations for Mary on the Green, and it would have appeared here next month anyway. But now it is gone.

In its account of the theft, the Evening Standard says the sculpture is worth £17 500, which seems odd. Perhaps that was the price paid to the sculptor, though given that it was only twenty years ago, the figure seems low. Surely it was insured for more? And in the end, it may only have been "worth" a couple of hundred quid to the thieves. What scrap merchant would accept a statue? The night theft the following month of a significant Barbara Hepworth bronze from gated Dulwich Park led to coverage of the issue by BBC news and the Wall Street Journal. The Daily Star of Lebanon chose to focus on Salter as the exemplar of the thefts:
For years a bronze statue of Alfred Salter sat on a bench looking out on a quiet bend of the River Thames, a memorial to a doctor who dedicated his life to a London district once infamous for Dickensian levels of poverty and disease. Now the bench is empty after his statue fell victim to a wave of metal thefts sweeping Britain, threatening artworks and ravaging infrastructure as thieves seek to capitalize on rising metal prices and a cash-in-hand scrap industry.
What would Mary say?

Next Friday I'll have more on sculpture, and I promise it will be just as inspiring, without the tragedy.

[Addendum: Sculptor Diane Gorvin got in touch, and alerted me to a nascent campaign to raise a new statue to Alfred Salter, and, this time, his wife Ada too, the first female mayor in London. "A committed pacifist and Quaker she was imprisoned for a short time during the First World War", and her legacy in Bermondsey is the trees she planted and the housing she established.]
Images from Wikicommons: the six-penny doctor, By Teddychen81 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (]; daughter and cat, Stephen Craven [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (].


  1. Great post! Very well said. I will miss the Salter statue - I used to pass by it often on riverside walks.

    Apparently there's a motion to outlaw cash payment for bronze, but somehow I don't think that will stop the shady elements who are involved in sculpture snatching.

    (That being said, I have a feeling Dr. Salter would be sympathetic to folks who have to resort to theft in order to get by...)

  2. Thanks for commenting, Ann! And thank you so much for introducing me to the statue(s) in the first place. You raise an interesting point about where Dr Salter's sympathies would have been. I do get the feeling that the theft of this work -- of someone who devoted his life and soul to the poor -- provokes a different reaction to the theft of e.g. the Barbara Hepworth. That was "high art", abstract, polished, in posh Dulwich; this was not.

  3. This is a shocking trend.
    But I don't agree with the last point - it's not like "posh" art deserves to be nicked while "democratic" art does not! It's a very sad loss all round.
    (Is there any way statues could be adapted to deliver a high-voltage blast to any malevolent assailant?!)

  4. Bee, thanks for joining the conversation! the good citizens of Bermondsey could sponsor a re-casting of Dr Salter, and a sign next to it saying, "Thieves stole the statue that used to stand here, and we were shocked. If thieves steal this new version, they will be shocked."

  5. It's very saddening to read about the theft of Dr Salter's statue (not that I knew anything about it, but to see art that is consciously so accessible and friendly ripped off, well...) Closer to my home, last week one of the two "Babies of Walloon" disappeared (http//:, along with her little sister's amputated hands! A poem commemorating the loss of these two little girls was penned by none other than Henry Lawson, idler poet son of journalist, newspaper publisher and women's rights activist Louisa Lawson. Also a propos statues, that of Emma Miller in King George Square in Brisbane is a particular favourite of tourists. (http//: Sadly, some wretch stole her umbrella. (You may recall that she is better remembered for wielding, not an umbrella, but a hatpin, directed at the rump of the Commissioner of Police's horse.

  6. Good to hear from you again, Vicki. Thanks for those examples; I hadn't heard of either of them. Your links each had one too many "http"s to embed, so I'll try for you:
    Ipswich City Council offers $4000 reward to catch Babies of Walloon thieves
    The first thing I thought of when the image appeared on my screen was the child amputees of West Africa. The New Yorker calls these deliberate mutilations "the signature atrocity of Sierra Leone's civil war". Could the statue be reborn (reconsecrated) to serve a second, international purpose? (And is the poem out of copyright?)

    Who's Who in Brisbane 1900
    A formidable woman. Thanks for alerting us!

  7. I believe the poem is out of copyright, Roberta. I don't think it is one of Henry's better efforts, though. If you ever have time, his short story 'The Drover's Wife' (in the collection 'While the Billy Boils') is a beautifully spare evocation of the strength of Australian women living in the bush. It still gives me a chill to read.

  8. I'll look out for it, Vicki. Thanks for the suggestion!

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